Aloha everyone! I haven’t posted any personal updates since my travels in December, so I wanted to post a quick update on what I have been up to in Saudi Arabia!
Regarding classes, it is my last semester of taking classes (woohoo) I am enrolled in an ArcGIS course which is great for ecologists to use to show their data spatially, and I have been learning how to runs statistics and all kinds of cool tricks with it. Here is a map I did for a project that looked at the movement patterns of 4 different whale sharks that were tagged in the Red Sea, in comparison to oceanographic attributes. The blue-green gradient shows chlorophyll-a concentrations (green being higher). Chlorophyll is a good representation of primary productivity, or how much phytoplanton is in the service. Where there is more phytoplankton there are more nutrients in the water, so we would hypothesize the whale sharks are migrating to areas of higher chlorophyll concentrations which is not always the case!
The other class I will be taking doesn’t start until after spring break, and it is called Coral Reef Ecology, I am super excited because we get a chance to go into the water to do some fieldwork- my favorite!! This class is considered a “block course” so it will be from 8-5 everyday for a little more than a month. In addition to these classes, I also took a week long R course, a free statistical analysis software used by many marine scientists around the world! I am also still doing “directed research” with a post-doc who is studying the zooxanthellae species in acropora coral along the latitude of the Red Sea. This is all lab work using genomic tools, it is a cool skill to learn! One of my favorite classes was taking a scientific diving course, because we got to spend time doing 6 dives!! We even got to scuba with 10 eagle rays and a pod of dolphins. We learned about rescue techniques, and worked on our underwater photography skills. Check out the video I made here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDenDpavDfw
Regarding my thesis project, I FINALLY have an idea of what I am doing. I am going to be working on a sand temperature projection to model how sand temperatures are going to change in the future with climate change predictions. Why is this important? Did you guys know that the temperature of a sea turtle nest determines the gender of the hatchlings? Marine turtles along with crocodiles and some other reptiles have what is called Temperature Dependent Sex! So with rising temperatures, the sex ratios of turtles around the world are being heavily skewed. There’s been a study in Australia that found that 99% of hatchlings were born female! In the future this could lead to lack of genetic diversity and population decline. I will also be trying to find turtle nesting sites along the Saudi Arabian coast as well as satellite tagging some female turtles to see where they migrate. Most of my field work will be deploying temperature loggers in the sand at nest depth, to compare against satellite sea surface temperatures! I will definitely post more info about this as time goes on!
Regarding my hobbies: I have been very active in my hula dancing class. We had two performances this semester. One was for a Kindergarden school at KAUST who is learning about different cultures around the world. We also danced at a huge event put on by KAUST called the Parade of Nations. This was one of my highlights of my experience here. Everyone dressed up and sang and marched with their country (I marched with USA as Hawaii along with some of my hula friends I dragged with me). At the event, each nation had their own booth where they set up props and handed out food that is famous in their country. I was blown away by the number of countries represented at KAUST, and the massive turnout of this event. I ate SOO much good food from countries around the world. And the performances were so fun to watch. There were dancers from all over, like India, USA, Philippines, so it was really cool.
Another big KAUST event was called flavors. This has local vendors from around Thuwal (the town where my school is) as well as Jeddah (a large city an hour away). Some KAUSTians also prepared food. I had a delicious vegetarian eggplant baguette sandwich and veggie curry in peanut sauce!
I also have been snorkeling quite a bit. It is around 80 SAR for a whole days adventure, including vegetarian lunch. That comes out to $20, which I think is super reasonable. The reefs off KAUST are absolutely insane. So beautiful, and the water is usually super clear and colorful. Some of the videos I took on these trips made it to the youtube video I posted earlier (go an watch it!). Here are some photos though, because they make me super happy. I am so glad I splurged on my nice underwater camera. For those of you who ask I have an Olympus OMd Em5 camera with an olympus underwater housing for it. I also have a GoPro 5 that I absolutely love.
I also had the chance to visit the new Jeddah waterfront. It is quite a popular destination which offers a beautiful sunset view and a great walk to take in the sights. I took a free bus from KAUST to the Red Sea Mall (which has delicious food options!) and then took a taxi to the waterfront.
Last but not least is one of my favorite academic activities: field work! I have been helping out my marine science friends with their projects. I have been diving for George’s project, who is looking at seagrass distribution and epifauna. We made these “crab nests” out of shower sponge things, and deployed them in several sites in a lagoon off KAUST for 3 months. Then we retrieved them and started to identify the creatures living inside them!
Also, last week I spent Monday-Thursday in Al Lith, a coastal village about three hours from KAUST. I was helping my friend Aislinn collect water samples and scuba dive to collect sediment traps that we deployed last semester along with finding burrowing clams to run isotope analysis on. I loved this trip, I was with a great group of researchers and we had a blast. A tiny perk was that in the afternoons when we got done early we had time to go look for whale sharks! It is the beginning of the whale shark season in Al Lith, and we weren’t expecting too much. Last year, in the entire season (March-May) they only saw two whale sharks. Lucky for us, last week I got to get in the water and photo ID 3!!!!! I was beyond stoked. I didn’t have too high of expectations but these whale sharks are what got me interested in KAUST in the first place. The KAUST whale shark researcher, Royale, already confirmed that two of them had been previously IDed, called Rosie and Scarlet and the third might be a new one!
In addition, we also got to swim SO close to manta rays, they stuck around for a while too. It was epic. We also saw two pods of dolphins, an eagle ray that leaped out of the water, a blue-spotted eagle ray, a nudibranch, and a baby clownfish on a baby anemone. SO COOL!!!!!!!! I will make a video showing these encounters as soon as possible!
So whats next? Hopefully continuing with whale shark field work throughout the Spring. I also leave for South Africa in the end of March for spring break. I am going to go on safari and then head to Cape Town for some diving, penguins, hiking/ other adventures! So excited. In June I will most likely be spending EID break in Egypt, then head to Cyrus for a wedding. And then in August meeting up with my family in Thailand!!! WOO I love adventures and traveling. Can’t wait to catch you guys up on my South Africa trip in two weeks! Thanks for reading!